Urgent Question: Hong Kong

Mark responded on behalf of the Government to an Urgent Question tabled by Catherine West MP regarding the impact of the Hong Kong extradition law on the Sino-British joint declaration. Mark's statement and initial responses can be found below and the entirety of the debate can be found on Hansard here or viewed in the above clip.

Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the impact of the Hong Kong extradition law on the Sino-British joint declaration?

The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

The UK Government remain acutely aware of our enduring responsibility towards Hong Kong as one of the joint signatories to the 1984 joint declaration that established the principle of “one country, two systems”. This principle, underpinned by the common law system, provides Hong Kong with the foundations for its continued success as a truly global financial centre and prosperous world city.

Let me turn to the current issues around the ramifications of the Hong Kong Government’s contentious proposals to change their extradition laws. Yesterday’s huge protest march—peaceful right up until the end—was a clear demonstration of the strength of feeling in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, has insisted that new legislation is needed to close a loophole that has prevented a Hong Kong national accused of murdering another Hong Kong national in Taiwan from facing justice, yet the Taiwanese Administration also oppose the changes, while civil society and business and legal groups in Hong Kong have expressed the strongest concerns about the content of the proposals and the very short consultation period.

Many fear above all that Hong Kong nationals and residents risk being pulled into China’s legal system, which can involve lengthy pre-trial detentions, televised confessions and an absence of many of the judicial safeguards that we see in Hong Kong and in the UK. While we welcome recent efforts by the Hong Kong Government to react to the unprecedented level of public concern—of the 7 million people living in Hong Kong, between 300,000 and 1 million were on the streets yesterday—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is clear that the changes proposed fail to address fully some core issues that we and others have raised.

The UK Government have been unequivocal in their views. From the outset, the consul general, Andy Heyn, and my officials have been raising concerns with the Hong Kong Government, members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council and the Executive Council at all levels. We have also had full and detailed discussions with Chief Executive Carrie Lam, both bilaterally and as part of an EU démarche. On 30 May, the Foreign Secretary issued a joint statement with his Canadian counterpart on the potential impact of the proposals on our citizens in Hong Kong, including on business confidence and on Hong Kong’s international reputation.

Some Hong Kong lawmakers have proposed an array of alternative solutions, including that additional legally binding human rights safeguards be included in the proposed legislation. In my meeting in London on 20 May with Hong Kong Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, Edward Yau, I made it clear that proper consideration must be given to all these suggestions as part of a wider and more comprehensive consultation. More time for consultation would allow for a more adequate consensus to be built.​

As the House will be aware, the operation of the court system on mainland China is very different from that which applies in Hong Kong. There are widespread concerns that fear of extradition to China might have a chilling effect on Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms and result in increased self-censorship. We shall continue to stress to the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities that for confidence in the “one country, two systems” policy to be maintained, Hong Kong must enjoy the full measure of its high degree of autonomy and rule of law as set out in the joint declaration and enshrined in the Basic Law.

Catherine West

It is very disappointing that the Secretary of State could not make it to the Chamber for the 1 million Hong Kong residents who took to the streets yesterday to protest against their Government’s proposed extradition Bill. If enacted, the law would allow suspected criminals to be extradited to mainland China, bypassing Hong Kong’s independent legal system. Over the past few weeks, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the business community, civil society organisations, the Hong Kong Bar Association and the International Chamber of Commerce have all expressed deep concern that the Bill will further erode the “one country, two systems” model.

The law courts on mainland China are seen as an arm of the state. Forced confession is frequently practised and activists often fear imprisonment for crimes they have not committed. Hong Kong’s common law system is not open to such abuse, as the Minister mentioned in his introductory remarks, and although it is under pressure, the separation of powers remains more or less intact. The amendments to the extradition law would significantly compromise the firewall that separates the sharply different systems.

In recent times, we have watched with great unease as political and civic freedoms have been put under increasing strain. Those freedoms are guaranteed under the Basic Law, a core component of the Sino-British joint declaration. As the co-signatory to that treaty, which is registered at the United Nations, the Government have a legal duty to ensure that it is upheld.

The last Governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten of Barnes, said that this Bill’s provisions were

“an assault on Hong Kong’s values, stability and security. They create fear and uncertainty…at a time when we should all be working to safeguard Hong Kong’s reputation as one of the world’s greatest business”

and cultural centres. Does the Minister agree with his colleague’s assessment, and will he outline how the Government intend to address this issue in the immediate future, alongside long-standing concerns about the erosion of democratic principles in Hong Kong?

We have a long and enduring history with Hong Kong, and we have lasting political, economic and cultural ties. As we mark the 21st anniversary of the handover next month, it is crucial for us to keep our promise that “Hong Kong will never walk alone”.

Mark Field

I thank the hon. Lady for the tone of her comments. She will be aware from discussions that we have had—and I have visited Hong Kong twice already during my time as a Minister—that we understand many of the concerns which have been raised by Lord Patten ​and, indeed, by her. In particular, we understand the concerns raised in the most recent six-monthly report—not without some controversy do we continue to have a six-monthly report—which states that, while we believe that one country, two systems is working well, in the sphere of civil and political freedoms Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is being reduced.

Let me say this in relation to the joint declaration as a whole. Three years ago, in 2016, we called on a breach of the declaration following the involuntary removal of the Causeway Bay booksellers from Hong Kong to the mainland. That was the first and, to date, the only time that we have called upon a breach. However, it is clear that these events are becoming close to breaching not just the spirit but the letter of the joint declaration. I fear that this is also a good example of tough cases making bad law. There is a potential loophole, but it is interesting to note that it is not one that the Taiwanese authorities have asked to be sorted out.

A Hong Kong national is being accused of a very serious crime—murder—and there is clearly no extradition prospect, but, as the hon. Lady rightly pointed out, this opens up a potentially much broader extradition-related concern. As I mentioned in my initial comments, one of the biggest concerns is that, particularly at a time when President Xi has a strong anti-corruption campaign in place, there is a risk that individuals could be caught up in this in a very inadvertent way. While there are proposed safeguards—it is proposed to raise the extradition level from a three-year custodial sentence to one of at least seven years—the situation none the less still raises the deep concerns to which the hon. Lady referred.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)

Lord Patten has said that the decision to exclude any extradition agreement between Hong Kong and mainland China in 1997 was not a loophole, but a deliberate decision that was made in order to protect the autonomy of Hong Kong and the firewall between it and China. Does the Minister agree that if countries speak with one voice in expressing concerns about this issue, there is likely to be more of an impact? What is the UK doing to join like-minded countries in expressing such concerns?

Mark Field

I thank my hon. Friend, who takes a great interest in matters to do broadly with China but also specifically with Hong Kong, and I pay tribute to her for her detailed and steadfast work in that regard. Yes, she is right: we need to work together as an international community on this. It is perhaps fair to put it on record that there are already some extradition arrangements between some countries and Hong Kong, but obviously we are deeply concerned that this particular law provides a much more general overview, particularly as it engages the Chinese mainland. But I will, if I may, reiterate what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and his Canadian counterpart, Christina Freeland, said as recently as 30 May:

“It is vital that extradition arrangements in Hong Kong are in line with ‘one country, two systems’ and fully respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.”

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I also want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) on securing it. I share her profound concern about these ​extradition laws, as evidently do hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong citizens who took to the streets over the weekend. These laws constitute not just an erosion but a fundamental breach of the Sino-British declaration and the one country, two systems principle it enshrines. They threaten the judicial independence of Hong Kong.

The warning signs have been coming for several years now: we have seen an increasing crackdown on dissent and protest. Now we face the prospect of a direct line between Beijing and Hong Kong’s courts that could see Hong Kongers sent thousands of miles away to face trial in mainland China’s flawed criminal justice system.

The UK does not have an extradition treaty with China, so why have the Government done next to nothing? The joint declaration is a legally binding treaty registered with the United Nations, and the British Government are the joint guarantor with China of the rights of Hong Kong citizens. Moreover, there are 170,000 British national overseas passport holders, many of whom reside in Hong Kong.

The concessions offered by the Hong Kong Government in the last few hours have no legal force, so I have one question for the Minister: will he make every effort to persuade the Executive in Hong Kong to halt the progress of these highly dangerous extradition amendments before Wednesday’s crunch votes?

Mark Field

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments, although I think some of them are a little unkind to officials, Ministers and also more particularly our excellent consul general, Andy Heyn, who has been out in Hong Kong, as we have recognised that this issue has been emerging for quite some time. As I mentioned in my earlier comments, it is also fair to say that we have consistently, certainly in my two years as a Minister, at every six-monthly report expressed ongoing concerns about the deterioration, as we have seen it, in political and civil rights.

It is probably fair to say that these proposals—the proposed extradition law—did not originate at China’s instigation, but there is no doubt that the Hong Kong Government are now under distinct pressure from Beijing. We believe that some opportunities to climb down have been missed, but even the huge public display of defiance yesterday—as I have said, up until the last few moments it was very peaceable—combined with concerted opposition from the international business and legal communities has not been able to turn the tide.

I say to the hon. Lady that of course we will do all we can. Andy Heyn is I believe in London this week, but his very able assistant Esther Blythe is back in Hong Kong, and we will do all we can to make further urgent representations to the Hong Kong Government.

This issue has highlighted that it is not the Chief Executive and not even the Legislative Council that can provide an effective check to external influence in Hong Kong; it is the presence and continuation of an independent judicial system. Obviously, again as the hon. Lady rightly alluded to, it now looks as though we are heading towards a potential pitting of the Hong Kong judicial system squarely against that of Beijing.